Friday, November 02, 2007

Modern vs. Contemporary: Language in the Church

Architects, designers, and social critics often use words that carry a great deal of weight to their craft. Modern, Post-Modern, Classical: these are words that convey entire philosophical systems, entire schools of thought regarding aesthetics, design, and man's interaction with space. Ideological wars have been fought over these words as competing factions wanted to own them, disparage them, or combine them. Every profession has its "inside" language, words that mean a great deal to those familiar with it, but little to those on the outside. The church struggles with words of its own, mainly Traditional and Contemporary. Not to mention Father and Son, which has come under a great deal of critique from feminists who demand gender-neutrality in all things liturgical.

The most grassroots culture wars are fought over "Contemporary" and "Traditional," however, as only inner-city and academic institutions quibble with ridding of Father and Son language. Just consider the vast different aesthetics between your typical Joel Osteen service and a liturgical service with incense, and you get an idea of the wide range of discrepancies in worship. Both of these words are heavily weighted, but equally meaningless in their own way. "Contemporary" Christians may embrace rock music in their worship, dramatic lighting, and "inspiring sermons" that deal with "daily life." But they can't escape all tradition or form, and you will find proponents of contemporary christianity as dogmatic as any "Traditionalist," just with different taste. The traditionalists, meanwhile, hold on to the "way things have always been done," which certainly has its limitations. But is the gospel any less contemporary now than it has ever been? Isn't the church, though 2,000 years old, as young and vital as it ever was? And isn't the liturgy, that by and large, has retained central pieces for 2,000 years continually contemporary?

So just as designers may struggle with how to label their style, so too does the clergy, especially as it seeks to reach an "un-churched" or "de-churched" world. Perhaps what we need is a change of vocabulary. Instead of mislabeling traditionalists as opposed to innovation and contemporaries as tradition-loathers, perhaps we could use the terminology of Modern and Classical. Classical seems to imply not a lifeless adherence to all things old, but instead adherence to those values that need not changing. Classical, for better or worse, seems to imply a better way of doing things, a harkening to a time when things were done right, when straight was straight and crooked was crooked. Modern, meanwhile, implies a break with the past, without casting judgment on the past. It's just the way things are done now, not that its an improvement per se over the way things used to be, but that its the natural evolution.

But is that any improvement? And is the church stuck in time? Can the Church "modernize?" No, yes, and no. Visions of what life together can be like certainly evolve, though, and that can indeed be reflected in its art, music, and architecture. But I am dubious of many attempts to "modernize" the church, to make it more "relevant" by speaking the vernacular of rock music and inspirational jargon. Indeed, there should be no "Traditional," "Contemporary," "Modern," Or "Classical" in an ideal world. There should just be orthodoxy, right praise and right teaching.

What continually strikes me as incredibly interesting about the Bible is that, while I am no scholar by any means, it truly still speaks to our current situation. The same thing cannot be said of a 2,000 year old medical guidebook or a 2,000 architecture journal. The human condition, and consequently God's interaction with that condition, never changes. The Church can speak to that un-changing nature by simply lifting up those things that remain changeless, letting them take center-court, and get out of the way as fast as possible. But that's not to say aesthetics don't have an enormous role in how that happens, or that minimalism is the answer.

Indeed, in many ways, the Church is stuck in time, but at the same moment, it transcends it. So great designers do have something new to bring to religious life, even if most new theologies do not. Tours of a Modernist chapel and Notre Dame reveal the way values have indeed changed, and it strikes me that architecture should reflect that. What once was about facing the same direction has come to be more about intimacy, and facing one another. What once served people in a utilitarian sense but served clergy only in a liturgical sense, now serves worshippers as the masters of ceremony. What once kept the focus squarely on what was both straight ahead and above, there is more interest in what is beside.

So worship may be more in the round than in a rectangle. The altar may be in the middle of the worship space, not just at the front. The pulpit may be at the same level as the hearers, not far away and towering above as in days of old, which was mostly for auditory improvement. Natural light, and being at the mercy of creation, may create a more "alive" atmosphere than canned music and artificial lighting. These are just a few architectural/aesthetic changes that can be made to reflect our evolution, but minimize our need to become "contemporary." I hope we can grow in maturity as we come to appreciate the role of aesthetics in religious life.

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